In describing Pope Benedict's reaction to a Belgian police raid on a cathedral in search of documents about sex abuse, The New York Times wrote that the pope stressed the church’s “autonomy” to conduct its own investigations and criticized the “deplorable methods” of the Belgian police. As in other countries throughout the world, Belgian church officials had long resisted any state investigation of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. The pope's complaint appears as it becomes more apparent every day that when he was charged with investigating sex abuse, he ignored the problem.
The Belgian church and state had worked out a tacit compromise that allowed the church to investigate the wrongdoing through an internal truth commission. When the commission failed to complete its mission, Belgian authorities raided church property in search of evidence about the abuse.
The government should be the agency that investigates violations of the law. Instead, the churches and their defenders have identified a constitutional theory that places church autonomy at the core of the First Amendment. According to the leading proponent of this theory, Professor Douglas Laycock, churches have a constitutionally protected interest in managing their own institutions free of government interference. Laycock strikes an odd balance between religious individuals and institutions, claiming that alleged state interests in regulating internal church affairs--e.g., protection of church members and church workers from exploitation--are usually illegitimate and should not count at all. This theory that religious institutions should be free to control their members is growing in popularity.
The sex abuse crisis demonstrates the dangers of that theory. Churches should not enjoy autonomy from the law. Like corporations and governments, they should be subject to the rule of law and penalized when they break it. It is implausible that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution, who questioned tyranny wherever they found it, drafted a Constitution that protected institutional churches from government oversight, leaving the churches free to violate the rights of individuals.
Founding and succeeding generations of Americans have come to these shores in order to avoid the tyranny of religious institutions. It is essential that they not be above the law as the pope suggests.